Serge Ibaka returns from ‘postseason-ending’ injury and transforms Thunder-Spurs series

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The Oklahoma Thunder were running out the clock in their Game 3 win over the Spurs, and Serge Ibaka was still on the court. Considering his injury, it appeared long past the time he should have been removed. Eventually, Kevin Durant left his seat on the bench and approached Scott Brooks.

“Get Serge,” Durant appeared to say.

Less than a minute later, Ibaka was pointing to the sky and walking to the bench as the Oklahoma City fans showered him with a standing ovation.

You can understand Brooks playing Ibaka too long. Thunder rolled the dice on Ibaka once already tonight, and the results were spectacular.

Playing for the first time since Oklahoma City ruled him out for the rest of the playoffs, Ibaka scored 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots. The Thunder outscored San Antonio by 11 during his 30 minutes in their nine-point win.

“I try to do my best I can to be everywhere,” Ibaka said.

He sure did.

Showing only occasional effects of his strained calf, Ibaka proved crucial on both ends of the floor.

From the game’s very first possession, when he used his long arms and quickness to close successfully on a Tony Parker mid-range jumper, Ibaka disrupted San Antonio’s previously surging offense.

The Spurs have shot 64 percent in the paint with Ibaka off the court this series and 46 percent with him on it. They’ve also taken just 44 percent, as opposed to 53 percent, of their shots in that high-efficiency area against Ibaka.

Indirectly, Ibaka made a much wider defensive impact. The Thunder stuck closer to San Antonio all over the court, likely in part because they knew Ibaka was protecting the paint in case they got beat.

Offensively, Ibaka’s mid-range jumpers proved a critical tertiary option. He needed fewer than 12 minutes of playing time to outscore Oklahoma City’s non-Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook starters in Games 1 and 2 combined.

Other elements also changed from Games 1 and 2 – the series moved to Oklahoma City, and Reggie Jackson started – but Ibaka played the most-influential game of the 2014 playoffs so far. Considering the stakes and his injury, this could go down a legendary performance in Thunder history. Oklahoma City’s offensive rating (92.6 to 125.7) and defensive rating (116.8 to 98.7) turned around dramatically with Ibaka on the court from off it.

But Ibaka’s big night will be viewed as historic only if the Thunder win this series. They’re still down 2-1, and they need their ailing X-Factor to produce like this again in Game 4 Tuesday. That’s a short turnaround in the playoffs, and the emotional high Ibaka felt tonight will be reduced.

Ibaka changes this entire series. He doesn’t mean the Thunder will win it.

But he means they could.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s 29 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist game Friday night

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This was more of what fans expected from Lonzo Ball.

After a rough first game against the Clippers — with Patrick Beverley in his face all night — Ball found plenty of room to operate against the soft defense of the Phoenix Suns. With room to operate Ball had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists — just one assist short of a triple-double. He helped the Lakers pull away to a lead in the third then hold on for a 132-130 win over the Suns.

Ball wasn’t terribly efficient, 12-of-27 shooting, but he was 4-of-9 from three, he played with great pace, he was decisive, and was finding guys with his passes. It was a step forward, even if it was against a sad defense (Eric Bledsoe can be a good defender, but he has seemed disinterested in recent years).

Ball and the Lakers are going to be up and down this season, the goal is for there to be more ups near the end of the season.

LeBron James rejects Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim

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Through the first couple games of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has put up impressive numbers — he dropped 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Cavaliers Friday night.

But the Cavaliers still have LeBron James.

He had 24 points and 8 assists, leading Cleveland to the win.

LeBron also reminded the Greek Freak just how good a rim protector he is. Few people can slow Antetokounmpo on the drive, but LeBron is one of them.

Is it too early to root for a Cavs vs. Bucks playoff series?

Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry out with fractured wrist

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In their season opener Wednesday, Atlanta second-year man DeAndre’ Bembry came off the bench and played 17:45, scored six points and was +13 on the night. It was a good start to his career.

But now he is going to miss some time with a fractured wrist.

Bembry underwent an MRI, which revealed a fracture in his right wrist, the Hawks announced Friday. He will return to Atlanta with the team (the Hawks lost to the Hornets Friday night) and will meet with team doctors at the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center on Monday. His status will be updated after that.

“We just may play some other guys more, we may use some of the young guys,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told the AP before Friday night’s game. “We’ll just figure it out tonight and as we move forward. I don’t think there’s anything guaranteed for anybody, it’s unfortunate for DeAndre’ and for us.”

 

Danny Ainge says Celtics will apply for Disabled Player Exception

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It’s not likely Gordon Hayward returns this season. His agent said as much, although a return in March is not out of the question. (It’s better PR wise for the Celtics to say he is out for the season, then if he returns early great, it’s better than setting a deadline he doesn’t meet.)

With that, the Celtics are going to apply for the Disabled Player Exception, which could help them land a replacement player, Danny Ainge told Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the Globe on Friday the club is applying for the Disabled Player Exception, which would provide the Celtics $8.4 million to pursue a player to fill Hayward’s roster spot.

“We’re in the process of doing that,’’ Ainge said. “We have a while to do that. There’s no urgency, but we will apply for that.”

There are limits to what that money can get the Celtics. The money is the same as the mid-level exception, the Celtics can go over the cap to use it, and the player can be obtained via free agency or trade. However, the player must be in the last year of his contract.

It gives the Celtics options. It also does not mean Hayward cannot return, it only means NBA-approved doctors determined he is not likely to return before a mid-June deadline.